Monstrosity and Spectacle in Chinese Figure Painting

What makes a figure “monstrous”? Definitions of monstrosity vary by culture and time period, but common among them is a sense of alterity or extraordinariness. In China, especially after the 7th century, artists tended to assign monstrous attributes to specific types of people who exist outside of everyday life and thus are viewed as “Other,” including religious immortals (Taoist gods and Buddhist arhats), people with disabilities, and foreigners. Such figures are almost exclusively depicted with prominent noses—large and bulbous or long and pointy—curly and unkempt hair, and sunken, bulging eyes. These features make such figures appear grotesque, and they often bear meaning that transcends appearance. The eccentric appearances of religious icons represent their miraculous power while the unusual looks of foreign, “exotic” subjects create a sense of excitement. These various ways of representing monstrosity also yield different visual impacts. When an artist uses a large physical format to depict numerous monstrous figures, the work can become a visual spectacle that prompts viewers to examine the variety of grotesque imagery presented.  

This exhibition also includes a section that explores alternative visual representations of the “Others” who are also female: unlike their monstrous male counterparts, foreign and immortal women are usually depicted as beautiful and alluring; this lack of monstrosity makes them more pleasing to the male gaze. Overall, this exhibition explores the theme of monstrosity, or its absence, in Chinese figure paintings through four different contexts that imagine, visualize, and celebrate figures who are seen as “Other.” 

Section 1: Iconic Monstrosity: The Miraculous Power of Grotesquerie 

Section 2: Monstrosity as Visual Spectacle: Multiplicity and Dynamic Viewership 

Section 3: The “Exotic” Foreigner

Section 4: Beyond Monstrosity: The Spectacular Female Other 

Yutong Li 
PhD candidate, Art and Archaeology 
2022 McCrindle Intern